31 The Greek Philosophical Tradition

The Sophist Philosophical Tradition

The Sophists were intellectuals who taught courses in various topics, including rhetoric, a useful skill in Athens. Because they taught in return for a fee, the Sophists’ schools were only attended by those who could afford it, usually members of the aristocracy and wealthy families. This was a time of profound political and social change in Athens: democracy had replaced the old way of doing politics and many aristocrats whose interests were affected were trying to destroy the democracy; the rapid increase of wealth and culture, mainly due to foreign commerce, undermined traditional beliefs and morals. In a way, the Sophists represented the new political era in Athenian life, especially because they were linked with the new educational needs.(10)


Painting by Jacques-Louis David called The Death of Socrates. In this depiction, a white-robed Socrates sits on a bed reaching for a cup of hemlock, prepared to die while his students stand in distress around him.
Wikimedia | Public Domain

Socrates, born in Athens in the 5th century BCE, marks a watershed in ancient Greek philosophy. Athens was a center of learning, with sophists and philosophers traveling from across Greece to teach rhetoric, astronomy, cosmology, geometry, and the like. The great statesman Pericles was closely associated with these new teachings, however, and his political opponents struck at him by taking advantage of a conservative reaction against the philosophers. It became a crime to investigate issues above the heavens or below the earth because they were considered impious. While other philosophers, such as Anaxagoras, were forced to flee Athens, Socrates was the only documented individual charged under this law, convicted, and sentenced to death in 399 BCE. In the version of his defense speech presented by Plato, he claims that the envy others experience on account of his being a philosopher is what will lead to his conviction.

Many conversations involving Socrates (as recounted by Plato and Xenophon) end without having reached a firm conclusion, a style known as aporia. Socrates is said to have pursued this probing question-and-answer style of examination on a number of topics, usually attempting to arrive at a defensible and attractive definition of a virtue. While Socrates’ recorded conversations rarely provide a definitive answer to the question under examination, several maxims or paradoxes for which he has become known recur. Socrates taught that no one desires what is bad, and so if anyone does something that truly is bad, it must be unwillingly or out of ignorance; consequently, all virtue is knowledge. He frequently remarks on his own ignorance (claiming that he does not know what courage is, for example). Plato presents Socrates as distinguishing himself from the common run of mankind by the fact that, while they know nothing noble and good, they do not know that they do not know, whereas Socrates knows and acknowledges that he knows nothing noble and good.

Socrates was morally, intellectually, and politically at odds with many of his fellow Athenians. When he was on trial, he used his method of elenchos, a dialectic method of inquiry that resembles the scientific method, to demonstrate to the jurors that their moral values are wrong-headed. He tells them they are concerned with their families, careers, and political responsibilities when they ought to be worried about the “welfare of their souls.” Socrates’ assertion that the gods had singled him out as a divine emissary seemed to provoke irritation, if not outright ridicule. Socrates also questioned the Sophistic doctrine that arete (virtue) can be taught. He liked to observe that successful fathers (such as the prominent military general Pericles) did not produce sons of their own quality. Socrates argued that moral excellence was more a matter of divine bequest than parental nurture.(11)


Plato was an Athenian of the generation after Socrates. Ancient tradition ascribes 36 dialogues and 13 letters to him, although of these only 24 of the dialogues are now universally recognized as authentic. Most modern scholars believe that at least 28 dialogues, and two of the letters, were in fact written by Plato, although all of the 36 dialogues have some defenders. Plato’s dialogues feature Socrates, although not always as the leader of the conversation. Along with Xenophon, Plato is the primary source of information about Socrates’ life and beliefs, and it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.

Much of what is known about Plato’s doctrines is derived from what Aristotle reports about them, and many of Plato’s political doctrines are derived from Aristotle’s works, The Republic, the Laws, and the Statesman. The Republic contains the suggestion that there will not be justice in cities unless they are ruled by philosopher kings; those responsible for enforcing the laws are compelled to hold their women, children, and property in common; and the individual is taught to pursue the common good through noble lies. The Republic determines that such a city is likely impossible, however, and generally assumes that philosophers would refuse to rule if the citizenry asked them to, and moreover, the citizenry would refuse to compel philosophers to rule in the first place.

“Platonism” is a term coined by scholars to refer to the intellectual consequences of denying, as Plato’s Socrates often does, the reality of the material world. In several dialogues, most notably The Republic, Socrates inverts the common man’s intuition about what is knowable and what is real. While most people take the objects of their senses to be real if anything is, Socrates is contemptuous of people who think that something has to be graspable in the hands to be real. Socrates’s idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at odds with the common man and with common sense. Socrates says that he who sees with his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his allegory of the cave, a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible world is the most intelligible and that the visible world is the least knowable and most obscure. In the allegory, Socrates describes a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from the fire burning behind them, and the people begin to name and describe the shadows, which are the closest images they have to reality. Socrates then explains that a philosopher is like a prisoner released from that cave who comes to understand the shadows on the wall are not reality.(11)


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